IT was actually strangely comforting to hear that even Maya Rudolph of “Saturday Night Live” wasn’t exempt from what’s been biting me — bedbugs, the city’s latest scourge. When I heard that she and her partner, Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of “Boogie Nights,” had moved into a SoHo loft only to discover that these parasitic insects had gotten there first, I felt slightly less cootie-fied, why, even a bit chic.
Could it be that bedbugs are becoming one of the city’s archetypal awful experiences? If “Sex and the City” were still filming, would Carrie be like me, spreading petroleum jelly on the legs of the bed, and washing all of her clothes in hot water and then wrapping them in plastic bags?
Having seen an illustration of a bedbug in a newspaper article about them, I recognized the tiny reddish-brown wingless insect with a gasp. It was like meeting a celebrity, but one who plays a villain. What a shock to see one of these notorious creatures face-to-face with me on my own sheets — which are not in a derelict neighborhood, but in posh Brooklyn Heights.
That first night I spotted one, I quickly moved to the living room couch — big mistake. Evidently the bugs follow you around the apartment, infesting wherever you sleep. The exterminator, when he arrived, had just come from East 81st Street. “From East 57th Street and up it’s plagued by bedbugs,” he said. “And they’re all over the Upper West Side, too. People expect them in another neighborhood. But it’s not about hygiene. It’s about who has the money to travel.”
Jeff Eisenberg, the president of Pest Away Exterminating, said: “Most calls come from Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue — from people of means. I get tons of calls from Park Slope and Cobble Hill.”
Many of us know that bedbugs are a problem in the city, but we’re in denial. It just seems too horrible, too outlandish to think we could actually have them. I live on a pretty street in a well-maintained brownstone. My husband is a senior manager in a corporation; I teach at a university. I really believed that my neighborhood was somehow exempt. And I’d always assumed an infected mattress was obvious — swarming with those little critters. I remembered Frank’s father in “Angela’s Ashes” walloping the mattress and bugs flying out. Those bugs were fleas, but I was sure bedbugs were the same. My husband had gotten no bites, but the itchy, reddish welts showed up on me by midmorning. I later learned that the bedbug injects anesthetic into its victims, the better to sup for five or 10 minutes. And that many men don’t seem to be affected by the bites. Also, the bedbug is secretive — hiding in cracks, behind electric outlets and above crown molding.
Perhaps my husband, who sometimes travels for work — not to Calcutta, but to Cincinnati and Indianapolis — brought them in. Or maybe it was our cat-sitter, who, while helping wrap my couch in plastic (in hopes of confining the bugs), happened to mention that her apartment had been infested with them for months.
Pest Away provided me with a list of instructions for how to get rid of bedbugs. And it was clear from the list that dealing with these invaders was not like dealing with, say, a cockroach problem where you spray pesticides and put out traps. Treating bedbugs requires intense preparation and follow-up. Books must be vacuumed and stored in plastic bins. Every clothes closet and drawer needs to be emptied, the items washed or dry-cleaned. Every picture must be taken down, vacuumed and wrapped in plastic.
After cleaning and preparing the various rooms in my apartment, I was exhausted and beleaguered. Most of the place was denuded and a pile of wrapped boxes and plastic bins rose to the ceiling in the living room.
Oddly enough, the lamp I had put out on the curb, wrapped and marked “Do not take — infested with bedbugs,” vanished in minutes, probably to be sold at a flea market. Black garbage bags filled with clothes and stuffed animals were slashed, their contents removed.
And after all my work, I couldn’t discount tales of apartments being treated four, five, six times. “This is a much different bedbug than even 10 years ago,” Mr. Eisenberg explained, noting that bedbugs have become resistant to the pesticides that are normally used to eradicate them. “Ten years ago, it was easier for me to get rid of them.” It’s clear to me that the city needs to educate people about this plague and make prevention a priority. This problem isn’t confined to homeless shelters; it’s everywhere. Travelers need to be told how to prevent bringing bedbugs into their homes. New York should follow Boston’s example in issuing stickers to place on discarded pieces of infested furniture to discourage others from picking them up.
Maya Rudolph and her family moved out of their infested building. It took me three months and four sprayings to make my apartment bug free. Although the bugs are gone, I live in fear that they will return.
Bonnie Friedman, a professor of creative writing at New York University, is the author of “Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life.”